“The Phantom of the Opera” is the highest grossing musical of all time and the longest running show in Broadway history. By those two metrics alone, we can call it the most popular musical of all time. In fact, the only other musical that comes close based on box office receipts and length of run is “Les Miserables.”
The engine behind Les Miserables’ success is pretty straightforward – its source material. Victor Hugo’s novel is one of the ten or so most important works of fiction in European literature, if not world literature. If someone told a conference of literature professors that it is Hugo’s masterpiece and the greatest novel ever written, you’d get much disagreement, but no one would look at you like you were entirely wrong either.
Phantom on the other hand is based on a popular French horror novel by Gaston Leroux. It’s a good book, but due respect for Monsieur Leroux, it’s not exactly a towering masterwork of world literature. Additionally, aside from its cleanup at the 1988 Tony Awards, it’s safe to say that Phantom has never been a critical darling.
So why is it so popular? Here are three attempts at an explanation:
Explanation #1: It’s the Vanilla Ice Cream of Musicals
The old adage is that vanilla ice cream is no one’s favorite flavor, but it’s everyone’s second favorite flavor. Phantom is like that too. Few venture out to see Phantom anymore, but most people are okay with it as a backup plan.
Can’t get tickets to Hamilton or the other mega musical du jour? In New York for only a day and can only see one show on short notice? Really want to see a second musical but can’t make up your mind? Oh hey, there’s always Phantom.
And why not? After all you’re guaranteed some top flight talent, familiar songs, and high production values. Productions of Phantom are predictably above average to good – why take a chance on something else? For casual theater goers, or even some not-so casual ones, Phantom is an attractive second option at all times.
Explanation #2: It’s the Gimmick with the Falling Chandelier
Spoiler alert! Just kidding, everyone knows about the falling chandelier gimmick – it’s heavily advertised every time the show does a touring production after all. It might be the one thing almost everyone knows about the musical, and the one thing people who saw it only as kids or teenagers, myself included, remember best about it.
That’s no small thing. People love certain gimmicks and the falling chandelier is one they absolutely swoon for apparently.
Explanation #3: Maybe it Really is Just that Good
I first saw “The Phantom of the Opera” when I was thirteen years old at the Pantages Theatre (now called the Ed Mirvish Theatre) in Toronto over twenty years ago. I remember that I wasn’t thrilled with it, but what I don’t remember is how honestly I felt that way. Was I really disappointed, or was it just a jaded, gen-x type reaction, also known as, everything popular is lame somehow?
I’m seeing a touring production in Minneapolis in December, but I don’t have to wait that long to find out how I feel about the show. I’ve been listening to the original cast recording, the one with Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, all week. While Andrew Lloyd Webber has been subject to his share of criticism over the years, the man knows how to put together a score of compelling music.
What of the story then? Leroux’s novel might be dismissed as a mere “genre classic,” but no story stays popular for over a century without resonating with people. The story, after all, has been adapted over fifty times in various formats, the second most famous being the Lon Chaney “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) which terrified silent movie audiences.
The story actually has a good deal of thematic complexity too. For example, the unscrupulous owners of the Opera give a glimpse into the ever uneasy relationship between art and commerce. But the real meat of the story is the number of layers in the Phantom’s character. He’s an outcast because of his physical deformity and has the soul of a poet. At the same time, he see Christine as his possession and reacts violently towards her when he can’t coerce her into loving him. In one sense, he’s a sympathetic character, but in another, perhaps more visceral sense, he really is a monster.
Feel free to share your theories and stories below. I’ve turned comments back on.
(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe